Legendary Lawyer Wade Smith Remembers His Roots
Wade Smith became the 37th recipient of the Judge John J. Parker Award at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the North Carolina Bar Association in Asheville.
The esteemed Raleigh lawyer chose the occasion to thank, first and foremost, Miss B.C. Parker.
Miss Parker was the principal at Central Elementary School in Albemarle when Smith entered the first grade in 1944.
“The teacher placed a big piece of newsprint in front of each child and a carton of water-added paint,” Smith recalls. “She said you can draw anything you want to draw. It was 1944, so all of the boys drew airplanes bombing ships. All of the girls drew little houses with stick figures sweeping the yard.
“I drew a rabbit.”
To this day Smith has no idea why he drew the rabbit.
“It took up the whole page,” he continues. “I painted the rabbit white, the grass green, the sky blue, the sun orange and I painted the eyes pink. That was it.
“Miss Parker came up and she said that is really, really good. She said we’re going to put this up in the hall. What a way to start school!”
In his acceptance remarks, Smith used that story, replete with a reenactment of his artwork, as a means of thanking everyone who has had a positive impact on his life. He also paid homage to Justice Carlisle Higgins, for whom he clerked following law school.
“I could not help but think of them,” Smith said. “That’s why I talked about Justice Carlisle Higgins and Miss B.C. Parker. I wanted to take an early one and a later one. They were the bookends of all these people who generously and graciously took an interest in me.”
Miss Parker was special, he added, because she realized the little boy from the mill village of Newtown was feeling somewhat awkward on his first day of school. She saw a way to help and continued doing so throughout Smith’s formative years. She later sent a note home to his parents encouraging them to let Smith join the Boy Scouts, and supported his successful nomination for the Morehead Scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Smith completed his undergraduate studies at UNC in 1960 and entered the UNC School of Law. Following graduation in 1963 and his clerkship, he joined law school classmate J. Harold Tharrington to form Tharrington Smith on Sept. 1, 1964.
From humble beginnings, during which they accepted clients no one else wanted, regardless of whether they paid, the firm would eventually prosper. Wade Hargrove joined the firm and so did Smith’s younger brother, Roger, himself a Morehead Scholar and UNC football star.
“In that little mill village,” Smith said, “how did two Morehead Scholars come out of one family, and two captains of the football team? There is no way to know something like that could happen.”
The Parker Award was presented by Alan Duncan, immediate past president of the NCBA.
“Many have referred to Wade as the dean of North Carolina attorneys, which serves as a measure of the esteem by which he is held by all of us,” Duncan said. “Not often do we have the feeling that we are in the presence of greatness.
“When I am in Wade’s presence, I always feel that I am in the presence of greatness, while at the same time feeling comfortable and at ease almost immediately. What a wonderful attribute to have. Wade, thank you for what you mean to our state and our profession.”
Smith has received many honors over his career, including the NCBA’s H. Brent McKnight Renaissance Lawyer Award and Criminal Justice Section’s outstanding criminal defense attorney award, which was named in Smith’s honor when he became the first recipient in 2008.
Beyond the fact that it is considered the NCBA’s highest award, the Parker Award carried special meaning for Smith because he has known almost all of the previous recipients.
“I have never been so surprised, happy and grateful as I was for that,” Smith said. “That was such a sweet and kind thing for the bar to do. I have personally known all but about five of them and admired them enormously. They were my heroes whom I loved and respected so much as members of the bar.”
To share this distinction with the previous recipients, Smith added, is overwhelming.
“The first thing I thought is there was no possibility when I was a little boy growing up in Stanly County that this could happen,” Smith said. “My mother and father were working in the mill, and neither one of them went past eighth grade. We had no running water.
“The journey from that to that moment in Asheville was truly littered with people who like Miss B.C. Parker undertook to help me. There were dozens and dozens of them, and I hardly did anything to get there other than to be receptive and grateful for their generosity.
“The teachers, lawyers, judges, family members, law partners, professors, football coaches – the journey from that place to standing up there getting that award is a journey populated by hundreds and hundreds of people.”
Including his grandfather.
“My grandfather on my mother’s side could not read and write,” Smith said. “He never owned a car. He drove a mule and wagon. When I think about the journey I think about him.”
To illustrate his point, Smith recalled an event at the N.C. Bar Center when he was asked to talk about marketing.
“I was the last to go and I told them I really didn’t have anything to say about marketing. I’ve never done any radio ads or anything like that. The one thing I always depended on was jurors to do my marketing. I always hope that after I have tried a case that the jurors will say, ‘If I ever need a lawyer, I’m going to call Mr. Smith.’
“I went on to tell them what I do before I make a closing argument. I go and sit down in a small room somewhere and think about my grandfather. He couldn’t read and he couldn’t write. He never had a chance to do anything interesting. He was just a farmer who never had a chance to come to a courtroom.”
So when Smith makes his closing argument, he does so in memory of his maternal grandfather, William Lee Carpenter.
“And when I do, nobody has a prayer! I’m joking, but at the same time it is true in one sense that I have so much gratitude for the chances I have had that my family members would have appreciated so much.”
This deep sense of gratitude, Smith added, has helped shape his life in such a way that he is constantly trying to pay back the kindnesses that others have extended to him.
“I never say no to a young person who wants to come in and talk about law or how to start a practice, what to do. I never say no.”
Just as Miss B.C. Parker never said no to him.
“Here is an example of what a teacher can do,” Smith concluded. “A devoted, dedicated teacher can play such a role. I wanted to be thoughtful in thanking her, and this was the really the first time I have had the opportunity to do that.
“So I decided that is what I am going to do. I am going to call out Miss B.C. Parker.
“Miss B.C. Parker, are you out there? Miss B.C. Parker, are you out there?
“This award is for you.”